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Autism is a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them. The causes of autism are still unknown. Many experts believe that the pattern of behaviour from which autism is diagnosed may not result from a single cause, and that there are genetic and environmental factors involved. Autism is a spectrum condition and affects each person differently.

Autism affects how a person interacts with others socially, communication with others, and how they deal with social situations.

What you might notice or observe

  • Challenges with planning and initiating work.
  • Challenges with organisation.
  • Challenges with living on campus and coping with independence.
  • Taking people’s speech literally and being unable to understand sarcasm, metaphors or figures of speech.
  • Little interest in interacting with other people, or having few close friends, despite attempts to form friendships.
  • Not understanding how people interact socially, such as greeting people or wishing them farewell.
  • Being unable to adapt the tone and content of their speech to different social situations.
  • Avoiding eye contact.
  • May experience sensory overload and if overwhelmed may shut down or have a ‘meltdown’.

A meltdown is not the same as a loss of temper. It is not bad behaviour and should not be considered as such. A meltdown occurs when a person feels overwhelmed by sensory experiences around them and being unable to communicate this effectively.

Being unable or refusing to interact may be another indicator of sensory overload. The student may withdraw from situations they find challenging, or avoid them altogether (‘shutdown’).

Although similar characteristics may be observed in people with autism, it’s important to remember that everyone is an individual and people can be impacted to a greater or lesser degree. Not everyone with autism will exhibit all these characteristics. It’s also worth bearing in mind that it’s estimated that up to 70% of people with autism may have a co-existing mental health condition. For more guidance on how to support students around mental health, visit the Mental Health toolkits.

The University of Leicester has created a series of videos where autistic students talk about their experiences in class. They have kindly given us permission to share these videos as part of the Supporting Staff to Support Students toolkits.

The Lecture Experience
The Seminar Experience
Group work and presentations

Positive ways you can support a student with autism

  • Get to know the student and ask them how best you can support them. Find out if they have a Student Support Plan in place. Please see the ‘How to Refer’ tab if the student doesn’t have a plan.
  • Speak clearly and consistently and allow the person time to respond.
  • Use direct and unambiguous language, whether spoken or written.
  • If there is a change to their routine, such as a lecture is cancelled or there is a room change, make them aware as far as possible in advance, an unexpected change can be extremely upsetting to some with autism.
  • Check that the student has understood if you have given them an instruction – ask them to repeat back what is expected of them.
  • Group work is very difficult for some students with autism. Assign them to a group, and help them to understand the ground rules about teamwork and help them understand everyone’s role in the group.
  • Be empathetic – for someone with autism the world around them can be overwhelming and leads to high anxiety.
  • Be patient with the student. Give them some time, especially if they are experiencing meltdown or shutdown - it can take a while to recover from an information or sensory overload.
  • Calmly ask them if they’re OK but bear in mind they’ll need more time to respond than you might expect.
  • Try to create a quiet, safe space as best you can. Ask people to move away and not to stare, turn off loud music and turn down bright lights – whatever you can think of to reduce the information overload.
  • Consider what reasonable adjustments can be made to support the student with their course. If you are unsure about reasonable adjustments, contact the Inclusion team for advice.
  • If the student is required to attend a placement or field trip as part of their course, ensure you plan in advance for any reasonable adjustments that may be required to ensure the student is supported appropriately.
  • Check if there are any reasonable adjustments you can put in place to support the student.

If your student’s disability or condition is affecting their wellbeing or mental health see our Mental Health toolkits for advice on how to support them.

Early referral can prevent students falling behind with their work. Contact the Disability Support team to make a referral if:

  • You are aware the student has autism and requires support.
  • The student doesn’t have a Student Support Plan in place already.
  • You feel you need support around reasonable adjustments.

If the student requires support with anything else including accommodation, money advice or wellbeing support contact the Catalyst Helpdesk to make a referral.

If your student’s disability or condition is affecting their wellbeing or mental health see our Mental Health toolkits for advice on how to support them.

Useful links and further reading

General advice from the National Autistic Society

What is autism?

Information for teachers that can be adapted for HE settings

Supporting students with autism in the classroom: what teachers need to know


Inclusive digital practice – advice from EHU Learning Services on how to make your documents and teaching more accessible.

Refer to the Student Support Plan if the student has one – these are shared with the named contact in the Department or Faculty or contact the Disability Support team.

Back to the disability and inclusion main menu